More Than Honey: Honeybees and Our Food System
This piece originally appeared on Fix.com.
The importance of bees to humanity’s long-term survival is impossible to overstate, yet their numbers are plummeting. In the past five years alone, the United States has lost 31 percent of its total bee population.1 Each year – because of climate change, mites, pesticides, colony collapse disorder (CCD), and other reasons that scientists haven’t been able to pinpoint – losses continue to escalate. Last year, beekeepers across the country reported the second highest loss of bee colonies ever.2 Some states, such as Oklahoma, lost up to 63.4 percent of their bees. While the reasons behind the numbers aren’t so straightforward, losing half a colony of honeybees is as devastating as losing half the food we eat.
Ironically, bees are oblivious to the $15 billion service they perform for the United States, and so are a lot of people.3 A worker bee travels anywhere from a few feet to five miles, depending on the weather, to collect nectar and pollen for its hive. While imbibing on a particularly inviting flower, the bee’s feet inadvertently collect bits of pollen sacs from the male part, the anther, and then the bee moves on to a new flower with pollen grains clung to its feet like little boots. While slurping up the sweet nectar, the bee deposits the pollen sac on that flower’s stigma (the female part). And then – as if by magic – germination occurs. In one day, a bee may repeat this process several thousand times, creating a cornucopia of new fruit or seeds.4
It’s not magic, but a bee’s work feels that way because germination seems to happen automatically, without human intervention. In reality, grocery produce sections are fully stocked because farmers and beekeepers go to great lengths to facilitate this deep and indispensable symbiosis.
It is possible to pollinate plants manually, but bees are better at it than we are. For some crops, such as litchi, mustard, and cashew, insect pollination substantially improves yields.5 But in other cases, without the assistance of bees and other pollinators, plants wouldn’t yield any fruit or seeds at all. So to maintain current levels of food production scaled to feed an ever-growing population, it is essential to maintain healthy bee populations.
Beekeepers across the country box up their bees and ship them off to different agricultural hotspots. Each year more than one million hives (or 60 percent of all hives in the United States) travel to California, where the almond crop depends almost exclusively on bees for pollination. Since bees are known to visit one species at a time during their daily foraging trips, their handlers strategically place them in the midst of an almond tree orchard, where the bees dutifully pollinate the flowers to build up their own colony, oblivious to our appetite for nuts. Eventually, those trees are ripe with delicious almonds full of vitamins and minerals. This almond crop, by the way, is worth $6.5 billion annually.6
No Bees, No Food
While the California almond crop is one visible example of our entrenched dependence on bees, it’s not alone. In 2013, Whole Foods ran a campaign to demonstrate what would happen if bees were wiped off the face of the planet.7 The grocery chain captured before and after photographs of one of their produce sections. The before image depicted shelves packed with colorful fruit and vegetables – the very epitome of opulence – while the after image showed the same shelves without produce pollinated by bees. They were virtually bare. Less than half of the products remained. The campaign offered a clever but disturbing revelation that if bees disappear, so will the abundance we take for granted.
The renowned scientist E.O. Wilson said that we can thank bees and other pollinators for one in every three mouthfuls we take.8 Even the White House has sounded the clarion call, in a 2014 press release outlining the threat to pollinators and the potential impact on domestic food production.9 The release reports that honeybees are responsible for pollinating 90 commercially grown products in North America, while 35 percent of global crops depend on insects for cross-pollination.10
It’s hard to absorb numbers when talking about one of our species’ top needs, so we’ve included a fraction of popular foods from the University of Kentucky’s School of Agriculture that would either not exist if it weren’t for honeybees – which doesn’t include solitary bees, bumble bees, and other insects – or would experience reduced yields.
Can you imagine life without coffee? Or cucumbers? What about honey? The average American consumes 1.3 pounds of honey each year.11 So voracious is our yearning for this sweet treat that the United States has to import about 61 percent of the honey we consume.12 Meanwhile, our own honey production in 2013 was valued at $317.1 million.13 North Dakota, which harvested the most of all states that year, sold 33,120,000 pounds of honey worth $67,565,000.
It’s extraordinary to think such a tiny creature could have such a prodigious impact. But we will have to deal with an even greater impact if we can’t solve the multifaceted issues responsible for the decline – from 6 million in 1947 to just 2.5 million today – of managed bee colonies and hives in America.14
What’s Killing the Bees?
Unfortunately, there are a slew of factors disrupting bees’ ability to perpetuate their own species, not to mention our own. And there are varying degrees to which we are responsible for and therefore capable of reducing the problem.
In 2006, American beekeepers started raising alarm about CCD, defined as a phenomenon whereby “the majority of worker bees in a colony disappear and leave behind a queen, plenty of food and a few nurse bees to care for the remaining immature bees and the queen.”15 Researchers suggested all kinds of hypotheses for the mysterious, sudden loss of worker bees, including one claim that cell phones kill bees.16 If anything, these disproven studies demonstrate the global desperation to pin down what is decimating huge swaths of bee colonies. The EPA claims incidents of CCD halved between 2008 and 2013, from 60 percent of hives affected to a little more than 30 percent.17
More recently, environmental groups have drawn correlations between CCD and a particularly toxic group of pesticides, called neonicotinoids, used throughout the U.S. but banned in Europe and elsewhere.18 The exact biological mechanism underlying the neurological damage caused to bees exposed to these pesticides is still unclear. The use of harmful pesticides can be addressed by enforcing bans or at least dramatically reducing the extent that managed bee colonies seek sustenance from flowers laced with chemicals. However, without a ban we are largely powerless to protect wild bees.
The 2014 White House press release insisted the administration was taking measures to limit neonicotinoid contamination and develop task forces to enhance the habitats not only of these pollinators, but others as well, including monarch butterflies.19
A lesser-known element of dipping bee populations is a vicious mite, called Varroa destructor, which has been around for at least 70 years.20 This parasitic mite lives up to its name by attaching itself to bees in various stages of development and transmitting deadly viruses, ultimately weakening the honey bees’ defenses. For now, most beekeepers use chemicals to control the mite, while others are attempting to grow a “super bee” capable of resisting infestations.21 Other beekeepers choose to leave the bees alone and let them take care of themselves, since these experiments often come with potential drawbacks, such as accidentally breeding out essential bee qualities including making honey.
What You Can Do to Help
First, if you have a garden, eliminate toxic chemicals. Look for organic pest alternatives and join the movement to reduce big ag’s influence on environmental policy. Plant bee-friendly flowers – as many as you can, wherever you can – and choose indigenous plants that have not been treated by chemicals. If you’re feeling especially ambitious, consider becoming a boutique beekeeper. Join thousands of Americans across the country, in both rural and urban environments, who have taken on the bee’s cause as their own. The next time you see a honeybee, be thankful for all it offers.